Reviewed today: Bristol Improv Presents: Dynamite!, Daniel Kitson: Shenanigan, Guys Dolls And Pies, Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, Roger McGough.
It makes for a jolly start to the day despite the wind and intermittent rain, and you need that sort of thing when you're starting with an 11am show on a Sunday morning. I'd say that shows by Guy Masterson inspire that sort of loyalty, but it's hard to say what his involvement is with Guys, Dolls And Pies: it's produced by his company, but appears to have no credited director. Two of the three performers involved - Ian Shaw and Duncan Henderson, but not Dave Mountfield - are appearing in one of Masterson's current Fringe hits, The Shark Is Broken: it looks like Guys, Dolls And Pies is what they do on the days when Shark isn't playing.
It's a typical small-scale Fringe production - effectively, a reading of some classic literature split across a group of actors. The literature in question is by Damon Runyon, a couple of short stories from an oeuvre that ultimately became best known as the source material for Guys And Dolls. One of the characters from the musical, Nicely Nicely Jones, plays a large part in the first tale of an eating contest and the inevitable high-stakes betting that it inspires: the second half is dedicated to a story of a darker hue, featuring a plugged gangster and a small kitten. With Runyon, the characters and the language are everything, and this simple stripped-back approach showcases them both to terrific effect. The cast of three leap seamlessly between multiple characters, and relish the poetry of Runyon's distinctive speech patterns. It's just the sort of gentle fun that'll get you through a Sunday morning hangover in one piece.
Most years, of course, our Sunday morning hangovers are accompanied by Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe, so this year The BBG and I are more awake for him than we are usually. Merv's been doing this almost as long as I have, with no plans to stop despite him now being in his seventies - though it has to be noted that his opening skit is a little more restrained than usual, and he doesn't have his guitar with him. His thirtieth celebrations should be happening in 2021, which is frustrating as that'll be a year off in my current schedule: he's threatening to have a pink tartan suit made for the occasion, and I wouldn't mind seeing that.
As usual, he's got seven Fringe acts to showcase in a rapid-fire ninety minutes. They're the usual mixed bag. Double Denim are an Australian double act who remind me of some of the smaller comedy acts we saw in the Melbourne Comedy Festival all those years ago, using enthusiasm and chaos as a substitute for jokes (though the chaos may be down to some problems balancing the sound at the start of the show). Beach Body Ready is an interesting-looking attempt at making the subject of female body image entertaining, and gets by on the charm of its cast of three. Both acts are enjoyable enough despite their flaws, and are more satisfying than the extract from Whose Mind Is It Anyway? - an improvised musical where some of the performers are hypnotised, thus efficiently combining two genres where everyone assumes it's all faked anyway.
There are two very different musical acts on the bill, if you don't count the music of Whose Mind. Phil Sanger's performance is intriguing as hell, mixing lipsync, dance and live vocals in a way I've never seen before. The BBG frequently suggests that with some of the acts on POTF, you might not enjoy the full hour of their show but a five-minute clip is perfectly fine: that may be the case here, I'm really not sure. More traditionally, Rock Choir is a huge group of singers (over fifty in today's performance) belting out pop classics. Their closing set is a rare example of a technical fluff - given the huge number of acts that pass through this show with virtually no rehearsal, it's amazing it happens so infrequently. Anyway, the nasty feedback that plagues their playback tape gives them an excuse to go acapella for a properly show-stopping finale.
Stutter boasts that his show isn't just a showcase for standup comedy, like a lot of its imitators: still, it has to be said that the two standups come off best here. Matt Price (who headlined a New Year's Eve show we saw a couple of years ago) is more of a storyteller who just happens to be anecdote-prone - here he repeats some stories from that earlier performance about his time performing in Broadmoor, keeping his new material for people willing to pay for it. Meanwhile, Michael Odewale's laid-back Sarf Landan charm has a similar vibe to that of Elliot Steel, and goes on our list for possible further investigation. That's what we usually hope for from Stutter: it's nice that he's as consistent as ever.
We grab a quick disappointing brunch at Burr and Co, where they appear to have run out of avocado by 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - DAMN YOU MILLENNIALS - and then head down the road to the Book Festival at Charlotte Square for the first in an occasional series you'll be getting here this week. As I mentioned a few days ago, it's exactly thirty years since I first went to the Edinburgh Festival, and I'm trying to revisit some of those acts that I saw back in 1989. Roger McGough was one of them: back in '89 he was doing a double-header Fringe show with the late Pete McCarthy, but today he's on his own. Confusingly so, in fact: the guy from the Book Festival who's meant to be chairing the event literally wanders off halfway through the introduction, leaving McGough entertainingly bemused.
It strikes me that the mental image of McGough I carry round in my head is from my childhood, back when he was having pop hits with The Scaffold. I've seen him several times since then - in fact, in this very yurt just two years ago - so I'm not sure why I'm so shocked to see this grey-haired man in his 80s, a far cry from the grey-haired men in their 70s that I seem to have been seeing a lot of this Festival. Anyway, he's still pretty sharp for an 81-year-old, and it's interesting to see how his newer poems (mostly taken from his latest collection joinedupwriting) are very much dealing with modern concerns: the environment, terrorism, a lament for the current state of America. He's very fond of tightly-formatted structures: who else, in this day and age, is going to write a villanelle for Villanelle off of Killing Eve? It's a delightful hour of gags and thoughtfulness, at the end of which he simply wanders out of the theatre, as some sort of revenge on the guy who's trying to give his outro. A Q&A might have been nice, but I guess the absence of one gives us more time for poems, so it's all good.
We need to do a bit of planning for the rest of the day, and use this as a fiendish excuse to pay a courtesy visit to Fierce Brewing's new bar on Rose Street: it's a friendly little place, certainly friendly enough that they don't stop us entering it like they did in the Aberdeen branch. We decide to have dinner at Bread Meats Bread on Lothian Road, where The BBG is impressed by the large number of veggie and vegan options, as well as their beer selection: the cans of Stone Go To IPA work very nicely indeed with our burgers. And the beer doesn't stop there, as just a few doors down lurks the inevitable BrewDog Lothian Road.
There's method in our drunkenness, however. Because for the second year running, BrewDog has turned its upstairs room into a PBH Free Fringe venue, and we had to investigate that, didn't we? The big question is, what to see there. A quick skim of the Little Blue Book reveals that a ridiculous number of improv groups are holding their shows in BrewDog this year. We eventually plump for Bristol Improv Presents: Dynamite!, in honour of the odd statistic that one third of Spank's Pals on this year's Edinburgh expedition have come from Bristol.
I'll be frank, I have a blind spot when it comes to student comedy on the Fringe, so the discovery that we're about to watch seven twentysomethings from Bristol University puts me on edge a little. But it's all fine: they're terrifyingly enthusiastic, but they've got the comic talent to back it up. The show's made up of the usual collection of theatre games: typically one of the group is sent out of the room, we collectively agree on something, and then the person coming back into the room has to work out what they've missed.
There are fun moments of wild invention, of course, but it's also fun to see the process at work: for example, the way that if one sketch is going on too long, someone will knock on the door and play a random visitor offering an outrageously blatant clue. The results are enjoyed by an audience covering a surprisingly huge age range, from several oldies to the young child who terrifyingly inspires the line "sex with me is like a Santander card: contactless." The audience also includes several people from the other improv groups performing at BrewDog, which means that the final sketch - where the team has to build something out of an audience member's life story - ends up collapsing in on itself, as seven people all work to separate incompatible scripts inside their own heads. Still, it's a thoroughly entertaining hour, and notable for being the first cash-in-the-bucket show I've been to that also takes payments by iZettle.
And we wrap up with Daniel Kitson. Don't look for him in the Fringe programme, he's not there. In a move which the man himself will categorise this very evening as Classic Kitson, he announced two sets of shows on his mailing list during a midweek lunchtime in July, and they'd all sold out by mid-afternoon. Over at the Stand, he's doing one of those standup slots where he just wanders onto a stage with next to no preparation to see what happens. Meanwhile, here at Summerhall's glorious Roundabout theatre, he's performing one of those storytelling shows where he's actually done some work in advance. These have worked well in previous Fringes, it has to be said, although I was a little nervous about the last-minute nature of its announcement, and about its title - Shenanegan - and published synopsis being obvious placeholders for something he didn't seem to have written as of mid-July.
In fact, I suspect this promotional sloppiness - along with some cheeky references to Classic Kitson Tropes in the opening minutes - is all to distract you from realising that Shenanegan is his most tightly constructed story in years. We start with a scene from the beginning of a relationship, and then jump ahead to several years in the future where the protagonists are living separate lives. From that point on, we're leaping back and forth to fill in the gaps in the timeline, using a cheaper version of the visual device from the similarly structured It's Always Right Now Until It's Later to keep us on track.
Despite this precise structure, Kitson's still capable of digressing wildly off the back of audience reactions, be it a careless yawn here or a casually scratched ankle there. He can't stop being funny, even as he's quietly seeding plot points that will pay off spectacularly at the end. If there's one objection I've had to Kitson's stories in recent years, it's that they've tended to hinge on a blatant narrative trick - he even mentions 'one character with two variations on their name to make them sound like two characters' in his list of Kitson Tropes at the start. Here, the climactic revelation develops much more organically out of the plot, and is properly unveiled rather than subtly hinted at: I've never heard a collective gasp at a Kitson story before, because for once the audience all get to work it out at the same time. Has he really just pulled something out of his arse that might end up being my favourite show of the year? Classic Kitson.